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Issue Date:  October 21, 2005

Intelligent design theory belongs in the science classroom


Although a frequent critic of President Bush, I think he was correct to say that intelligent design theory deserves a mention in science classrooms alongside Darwinian evolution.

Intelligent design theory is not based on the Bible or any other scripture. It is not creationism in disguise, as opponents of intelligent design misleadingly claim. Intelligent design accepts evolution as a fact. It accepts an ancient earth (4.6 billion years) and a still more ancient universe (13.7 billion years). It accepts all the findings of responsible science. But it does not accept Darwinism.

Darwinism is not the same thing as evolution. It is a particular theory of how evolution occurred. According to Darwinism, the entire process was unguided and happened “naturally.” Intelligent design theorists contest this claim. They call into question Darwinian evolution’s cardinal doctrine, natural selection. Proponents of natural selection claim that the process by which more complex organisms arise from less complex ones is not guided by any intelligence. Proponents of intelligent design say it is.

Supporters of intelligent design hold that Darwinian evolution is not good science. Here is why:

According to the tenets of Darwinian evolution, a genetic accident within a member of a species sometimes (actually very rarely) has a beneficial effect on the species. Consider archaeopteryx, the transitional form between dinosaur and bird that Darwinian evolution holds is the ancestor of birds as we know them. A long series of genetic accidents gradually turns the dinosaur’s forearm into a feathery appendage (wing) that enables the archaeopteryx to better flee its enemy by soaring above the ground. And that advantage gives it a much better chance of surviving. Thus birds evolve from dinosaurs, according to standard Darwinian teaching. In a similar manner every species has evolved. All is explained by a long series of lucky genetic accidents, the survival of the fittest, and a steady march forward across hundreds of millions of years from blue-green algae to Mother Teresa.

The theory sounds great, as no doubt you were told in your high school biology class. But it has one potentially fatal flaw. Let’s get back to the example of the feathery appendage. There is no evidence that the wing evolved in one fell swoop. Darwinians grant that it took a whole series of genetic accidents spanning millions of years for the wing to fully evolve. At first there was just some extra fluff on the dinosaur’s forearms. Then a little more. Then still more. Then something that resembled feathers. Then more feathers. And finally two wings that enabled the first proto-bird to rise off the ground.

Do you begin to see the problem? What survival advantage did the first genetic accident resulting in a little extra fluff on its forearms give the dinosaur? Or even the 20th fortuitous accident resulting in something genuinely feathery? None that intelligent design can see, because the dinosaur still can’t fly. So what would push the dinosaur along such a line of evolutionary development? Nothing that intelligent design can see unless there was some kind of intelligence guiding the evolution. Some kind of intelligence that saw in advance that this long and gradual process would result in that marvelous life form we refer to as a bird. Some kind of intelligence that wanted birds inhabiting our earth and knew how to bring it about -- by a guided evolution.

There are thousands of instances like this that resist explanation via Darwinian evolution. Try explaining, for example, what the survival value was for us when our ancestors lost their tails and fur. We find hairy apes at the equator and some of the least hairy humans on the planet inside the Arctic Circle. Natural selection? This is just one of many anomalies that leave me scratching my head and looking for some other explanation.

Opponents of intelligent design label this “other explanation” unscientific. Is it? Supporters of intelligent design claim that evolution was guided; supporters of Darwinian evolution claim it wasn’t. Is it really unscientific to claim that an unseen intelligence guided the evolution? I don’t see why. Human intelligence is unseen. But we all know that it’s behind our homes and our cities. To acknowledge that in almost every case intelligent choices create order isn’t unscientific.

Is it unscientific to point out the weakness in Darwinian evolution? Leading theorists of intelligent design such as Michael Behe and William Dembski think it’s good science. They single out organs, like the human eye, or even highly complex molecules and show that they are “irreducibly complex” -- that is, the supposed transitional forms leading to but falling well short of them wouldn’t have been any more fit to survive than their starting point. So how could the end product have evolved? Unless, of course, it was all along on the radarscope of an unseen intelligence guiding the evolution to its target, as most Catholics believe.

The argument presented here is not based on the Bible. True, many Bible-based Christians have championed it. It is, after all, much more compatible with their beliefs than Darwinian evolution, for there is nothing to rule out the possibility that the unseen intelligence is much more than a designer. But what one’s faith adds to the designer does not affect the validity of the argument for intelligent design.

I will conclude by quoting from Einstein. “You will hardly find one among the profounder sort of scientific minds without a peculiar religious feeling of his own. … His religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.”

The “intelligence” Einstein refers to is the same sort of intelligence intelligent design points to. Would anyone want to claim that Einstein’s conclusions are unscientific or faith-based or his reasoning invalid? Or that his views are inappropriate for a science classroom?

Stafford Betty is professor of religious studies at California State University, Bakersfield.

National Catholic Reporter, October 21, 2005

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