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Intelligent Design

Whether Pat Robertson believes it or not, U.S. District Judge John Jones III made the only logical decision he could have by barring “intelligent design” from science classrooms.

Intelligent design proponents – including Robertson, who famously warned voters in Dover, Pa., not to ask for divine assistance after they ousted local school board members who backed an intelligent design curriculum - promote this as a battle between atheists and people of faith. In reality, this is a case about understanding the rules of science, and protecting the integrity of science and religion. Any other ruling would amount to an arbitrary mid-game change of rules, the equivalent of an umpire allowing the third baseman to tackle an opponent to prevent the runner from reaching home plate.

Let me explain.

First, intelligent design (or “ID”) is not a scientific concept. It’s an attempt to return science back to a pre-19th century natural theology, the belief that a study of nature would prove the existence and/or nature of God. It doesn’t belong in the science curriculum. Second, ID has been fruitless in the production of scientific knowledge. In short, there would be nothing to teach in an ID curriculum because the ID literature is primarily an unscholarly attack on perceived holes in evolutionary theory. But these holes don’t really exist, but are merely the unanswered questions on which true science thrives.

Science – as the study of the natural world – can make no claim to confirm or deny the existence of God or ultimate purpose.

According to Steven Meyer, director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, intelligent design contains two principle planks: 1) That there is a designer; and 2) That evidence of the designer is detectable by science, that there are “fingerprints” left by the designer. Note that Meyer’s first principle is the unquestioned certainty of the existence of a designer. This point was confirmed again in the courtroom testimony of the ID advocates in the Dover case. Since its inception, ID has been a metaphysical belief that belongs outside of science.

Science – as the study of the natural world – can make no claim to confirm or deny the existence of God or ultimate purpose. Therefore, statements such as “Science proves there is no God,” and ID statements such as “Science proves there is God” are equally non-scientific. Both types of statements should only be used to help students distinguish between scientific fact and theories and non-scientific beliefs.

Whether one agrees or not with the premise that current science leads to materialism and all the evils of society, I cannot emphasize enough that one needs to understand that the “supernatural” is not amenable to scientific study. To allow local school boards to require the teaching of ID alongside, and as an alternative “scientific” explanation, evolution would immediately defeat the goals and standards of science education in Pennsylvania (and would inevitably erode science education standards elsewhere, too).

Michael Behe has tried to promote “irreducible complexity” as a legitimate scientific concept. He claims that science can indeed detect the “fingerprints” of an undefined intelligent designer in these irreducibly complex structures by merely asserting that they cannot arise through the process of Darwinian evolution. As he admitted in court, he has not interest in testing this “hunch” scientifically. Interestingly, though, one of the founders of modern genetics, Hermann Müeller, predicted in 1939 that evolution – natural selection on naturally occurring genetic variations – would produce such integrated and complex systems.

What is Behe missing that evolutionary biologists and the overwhelming majority of scientists aren’t? First and foremost, Behe ignores the utility of information that scientists discover through comparative studies between closely and distantly related organisms and genes. Behe assumes that he can arbitrarily determine the “true functions” of the components of his irreducibly complex systems. Behe argues that the cell can not evolve irreducibly complex systems because evolution would throw away the “non-functioning” partial systems, just as you would throw away a mousetrap if it were missing a part.

However, comparative biology reveals that changes in function are common themes in evolution, so a cell doesn’t have to retain useless “partial mousetraps”; partial mousetraps serve other functions. How many functions can you think of for the vertebrate tail?

The use of comparative biology, however, reveals change of function is a common theme in evolution, so a cell doesn’t have to retain useless “partial mousetraps.”

More damning to the ID argument, and an indication of its non-scientific status, is the fact that it’s untestable. Hypotheses derived from evolutionary theory are testable, and indeed have been tested many times over. Arguments requiring a vague supernatural designer are not.

If ID has failed as science, why are we debating it on school boards, before legislatures and in the courtroom? Because ID has succeeded as a political and religious movement. The Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture is part of a strong lobbying group, and ID has become the politically correct term for conservatives looking at evolution and science in general to override an unfounded fear that science, and in particular evolution, is anti-religious. It is not.

In his ruling, Judge Jones reaffirmed what every major scientific organization agrees upon – intelligent design is not science. Any other decision would have switched up the rules in the middle of the game.

If that happens, don’t complain when the third baseman tackles a runner who’s rounding toward home plate.

Randy Bennett, a biology professor at Juniata College, where he team teaches a course called “God, Evolution and Culture” with religious studies and philosophy faculty. Bennett also testified last June before the Pennsylvania House of Representatives on House Bill 1007, which would have required the teaching of intelligent design in public school classrooms.