Photo credit: Gage Skidmore
Louisiana governor and possible presidential candidate Bobby Jindal has been ramping up his efforts to show the base of the Republican Party that he is uniquely qualified to turn America into an Christian dystopia where science takes a backseat to religious gobbledygook. One of his achievements as governor was the enactment of the 2008 Louisiana Science Education Act, which allows the religion-based pseudoscience known as Intelligent Design (creationism, really) to be taught in public schools, and is the focus of an ongoing effort to repeal it by science-minded Louisianans. Last year, Jindal — a biology major — infamously refused to say whether he accepts the theory of evolution.
Clearly, Jindal could use some education, so I’ve adapted a piece I wrote a while ago for Talk Reason, which explains why Intelligent Design is bullshit.
The pro-Intelligent Design “think” tank, Discovery Institute, describes the bunk theory this way:
Intelligent design refers to a scientific research program as well as a community of scientists, philosophers and other scholars who seek evidence of design in nature. The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection. Through the study and analysis of a system’s components, a design theorist is able to determine whether various natural structures are the product of chance, natural law, intelligent design, or some combination thereof. Such research is conducted by observing the types of information produced when intelligent agents act. Scientists then seek to find objects which have those same types of informational properties which we commonly know come from intelligence. Intelligent design has applied these scientific methods to detect design in irreducibly complex biological structures, the complex and specified information content in DNA, the life-sustaining physical architecture of the universe, and the geologically rapid origin of biological diversity in the fossil record during the Cambrian explosion approximately 530 million years ago.
Let’s break this down point by point.
We are told that ID is a program conducted by “scientists, philosophers, and other scholars who seek evidence of design in nature.” Basically this is an admission that their program is not about gathering data and allowing the evidence to lead them wherever it may, but rather a mission to find evidence which supports a predetermined conclusion — that being that an intelligent agent created everything. In this way, the ID “researcher” confines himself to analysis of only those findings which he may have use as a buttress for the conclusion he has already arrived at. It goes without saying that this is not science. To presuppose the existence of a (perhaps supernatural) designer is to preclude real, thoughtful, scientific research in accordance with the scientific method, since science deals with observable, measurable, phenomena.
Second, there’s a problem with the characterization of natural selection as an “undirected” process. While selection is certainly not guided by a designer, it is guided by a fundamental logic inherent in the way that populations of species develop over time. Specifically, organisms with the highest likelihood of passing on their genes are those best-adapted to their environments due to their having characteristics conducive to survival and procreation. Hence, natural selection is not some willy-nilly phenomenon, but is a completely logical and — more important — observable process which helps explain to a great degree speciation and evolution in general.
Next, we come to this gem:
“Through the study and analysis of a system’s components, a design theorist is able to determine whether various natural structures are the product of chance, natural law, intelligent design, or some combination thereof.”
This is outright bullshit. First of all, evolution is not about chance. Science is not interested in theories that attribute important phenomena to mere whimsy and caprice. When ID advocates rail against the alleged role of chance in evolution, they betray their ignorance on the subject. As I just explained, natural selection is hardly a matter of chance. Nor is, as is popularly believed, mutation or what is sometimes called “random mutation.” Mutation of course refers to changes in an organism’s DNA or RNA (genetic material) resulting from the miscopying of cells during cell division and also exposure to viruses, chemicals, and radiation, just to name a few of its sources; and this act may or may not produce an effect which causes the organism to be measurably different in some way from its peers. Thus mutation has identifiable causes which can be observed and assessed. Even if we cannot in some instances ascertain why a mutation has occurred, we logically assume that there exists a cause which is not yet within our ability to grasp. We do not use the holes in our understanding as an occasion to invoke God for the purpose of plugging those holes. This is both unscientific and lazy.
But what is truly incredible about the Discovery Institute’s statement is the idea that ID “theorists” can determine if natural structures are a product of intelligent design. How could they possibly determine whether the universe is intelligently designed when they have no other universe with which to compare it? Indeed, what would a non-designed universe look like? Or, what would an unintelligently designed universe look like? I am afraid that for the tunnel-visioned ID advocates, the achievements by men and women in the fields of biology, chemistry, physics and other sciences have had the exact opposite effect on them than the one it should have had. Indeed, as Christopher Hitchens has noted, ID advocates have seen fit to use findings of science which have revealed further complexities in the natural world to assert that God is even cleverer than they had thought. In this way, good science unwittingly serves to support the cause of the ID advocates (in their view) because by their own admission, the very nature of the ID “research” program requires that when reviewing scientific findings, they always do so with an eye toward their predetermined conclusion about intelligent agency.
Further, the Institute says,
“Such research is conducted by observing the types of information produced when intelligent agents act. Scientists then seek to find objects which have those same types of informational properties which we commonly know come from intelligence.”
And what are the objects we know come from intelligence? Paintings, automobiles, televisions, etc. In other words, mostly manmade objects, along with the occasional bird’s nest and beaver dam. But these objects clearly have design and purpose because we have either created them ourselves or have observed them built and used. To a truly objective eye, the world does not appear to have a purpose, and to say that it does is — once again — to formulate a conclusion not supported by the evidence. The problem here is the same as before in that we do not have any criteria for determining what an intelligently designed universe looks like.
Coming down the homestretch,
“Intelligent design has applied these scientific methods to detect design in irreducibly complex biological structures, the complex and specified information content in DNA, the life-sustaining physical architecture of the universe, and the geologically rapid origin of biological diversity in the fossil record during the Cambrian explosion approximately 530 million years ago.”
In the first place, by “these scientific methods” the statement means the ones I just demonstrated as being worthless in the preceding. Second, we come to the darling “theory” of ID: “irreducible complexity” — the odd idea that some systems are too complex to have arisen through natural selection. As Richard Dawkins has observed, supporters of irreducible complexity begin their argument simply by proclaiming that something is irreducibly complex, and that if one part of the system is removed, the whole apparatus will not work properly. However, I fail to see, for example, how by recognizing that removing the retina from a human eye will render it useless, this does any damage to evolutionary theory. Evolution is predicated on the idea that genetic and biological compositions change over time as organisms adapt in accordance with their (changing) environments. These adaptations very often involve a “progression” from relatively simple systems to more complex ones. Rather than an argument against evolution, the eye may be rightly viewed as the intricate culmination of millions and billions of years of evolutionary change in those organisms from which humans are descended.
Finally, ID “theorists” who do not ascribe to the asinine view that the world is only a few thousand years old, frequently invoke the so-called Cambrian explosion in an effort to bolster their case. Indeed, they brandish the Cambrian period as if it were some kind silver bullet to be shot into the heart of evolutionary theory. But their optimism is misplaced. More and more evidence is being uncovered which suggests that the “explosion” was not as sudden as initially thought. As Fortey, Briggs, and Wills have observed,
Two independent lines of evidence have prompted a critical re-examination of the Cambrian evolutionary ‘explosion’. The first has involved a closer look at the nature of the fossil record and the phylogenetic relationships of Cambrian animals. The second is based on the estimated sequence divergence of times of critical genes in the major groups of living animals, where these reflect deep phylogenetic branching. Both lines of evidence indicate that the important branching events separating the animal phyla from their various common ancestors happened much earlier than the base of the Cambrian; the fossil record cannot be taken literally as a chronology of phylogenesis.
As such, the authors further note, “It may not be generally appreciated by biologists that first occurrence in the fossil record is not necessarily the same as time of origination.” While this fact may not be appreciated by some biologists, as far as I can tell it is certainly not appreciated by any IDist.
It should also be pointed out that although ID advocates like to claim that the beginning of Cambrian period lends credence to the idea of intelligent agency, the subsequent extinction of Cambrian organisms poses yet another problem for ID. If the universe is intelligently created, how does one account for the fact that over 99% of all species that have ever existed are no more? That’s some design. Rather than deal a blow to evolutionary theory, the implicit lesson of the Cambrian “explosion” seems to confirm one of its fundamental maxims — that only the fittest shall survive. Thankfully, this principle also applies to scientific theories, and hopefully in due time the American public — including Bobby Jindal — will realize that Intelligent Design is so insufferably weak that it should no longer be allowed to live.