The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"The quizzical expression of the monkey at the zoo comes from his wondering whether he is his brother's keeper, or his keeper's brother."...  ... Evan Esar.

Commentary of the Day - September 29, 2005:  Not So Intelligent Design.

This week the federal court in Harrisburg, PA is considering a legal challenge to the actions of the Dover, PA school board, which have required that so-called "Intelligent Design" theory be included in the Dover Area School District's biology classes alongside the conventional theory of evolution.  The trial is being closely watched across the country because school districts in some 20 states have been trying to introduce ID theory into their biology curriculums.  The scientific community generally has opposed the teaching of ID theory in science classrooms on the basis that it is just "creationism" (which already has been ruled a religious doctrine rather than a scientific theory by the federal courts) in another guise.

Intelligent Design proponents argue that some biological systems and structures are too complex to have come about through the natural processes that form the basis for modern evolutionary theory.  These include natural selection as proposed by Darwin along with more recent scientific discoveries in gene transfer, symbiosis, chromosomal rearrangement, and regulator genes.  One ID proponent, Michael J. Behe, argues that some biological systems are "irreducibly complex" in the sense that if one part is removed then the structure will not function as intended.  He then argues that such irreducibly complex systems could not be built up from simpler structures through evolutionary processes.  Another ID proponent, William A. Dembski, is a mathematician who argues on statistical grounds that it is just too improbable that complex natural systems could have arisen by chance.

ID theory is supported by religiously based organizations such as The Discovery Institute and its Center for Science and Culture.  The Center is noted for its so-called "wedge strategy".  The goals of this strategy go beyond displacing evolutionary theory in biology with ID theory.  According to this strategy  the Center aims "to see intelligent design theory as the dominant perspective in science; to see design theory application in specific fields, including molecular biology, biochemistry, paleontology, physics and cosmology in the natural sciences, psychology, ethics, politics, theology and philosophy in the humanities; to see its influence in the fine arts; [and] to see design theory permeate our religious, cultural, moral and political life."  ID theory has been subjected to repeated challenges from the mainstream scientific community.  And, its most fundamental tenets have been questioned in detail.  Victor Stenger's paper "Intelligent Design - Humans, Cockroaches, and the Laws of Physics" is one of the more readable papers among these challenges to ID theory.

The ID proponents advance as a solution to these "dilemmas" that they see in conventional evolutionary theory the notion that such complex systems provide evidence that an "intelligent designer" must have been at work.  In other words, in the absence of a natural explanation there has to be supernatural explanation.  The ID proponents are careful not to mention who the "intelligent designer" might be in order to skirt the proscriptions that prevent public school employees from promoting religious beliefs.  But, all but the most intellectually challenged citizens should be capable of seeing through the charade.  Visits to the leading intelligent design web site confirm that the great majority of the people behind the ID movement are religiously motivated, and most of these are fairly fundamentalist in their outlook.  But unlike the openly religious approach of the young-earth creationists who deny entirely the validity of evolutionary biology along with good bits of geology, astronomy, and physics, the ID proponents put forth a "theory" that both admits at least a minor role for evolution in biology and concedes that most aspects of the modern physical sciences are basically correct.

In this sense ID theory is a very watered down version of creation science that almost could be considered "evolution light".  ID theory apparently allows evolution to account for much of the adaptation that obviously takes place within biological species as their environments change.  But at critical points the supernatural designer has to hop in to ensure that this limited evolution does not conflict too greatly with supernatural creation.  Whenever a biological structure somehow is deemed "too complex" a natural explanation is not sought, but rather the miraculous is invoked.

The problem with ID, as the IP sees it, is that it is both bad religion and bad science.  By invoking a nameless intelligent designer, ID leaves it up to the learner to determine who or what this supernatural force is.  The ID proponents hope, of course, that students will jump to the conclusion that the designer is the same God that they hear about at church.  But, many students might just as well infer that the designer was from some hyper-intelligent race of space aliens.  ID theory, in order to pass Constitutional muster, allows you to choose the supernatural designer that you prefer be it God, space aliens, or The Great Seagull.

The main reason that ID theory is bad science is that unlike conventional scientific theories it has almost no predictive power.  In science we judge the value of a theory by its predictive power.  For example, in physics we consider relativistic mechanics to be a better theory than classical Newtonian mechanics because the predictions of relativistic mechanics cover a wider range of physical situations while at the same time the predictions of relativistic mechanics agree with those of classical mechanics for those situations where the predictions of classical mechanics were known to agree closely with experiment.  A fundamental requirement for any scientific theory is that it must make predictions that are testable; i.e., that agree with observation and experiment.  The problem with ID is that it is basically a "negative" theory.  It doesn't predict the outcome of observations and experiment, but rather provides, at least according to its proponents, only a way of determining if an observation is detecting a situation that is so complex that no natural explanation should be sought.

In addition, because of its vagueness ID theory can be challenged but unlike scientific theories it can never be definitively tested.  One of my favorite challenges to ID theory, and one for which I've never seen a satisfactory answer, is the conundrum of the appendix.  The human digestive system is a complex system of organs that resembles the digestive system of many other mammals.  Included in the human digestive system is an organ called the appendix.  The appendix performs no known function in the human digestive system, although there have been some suggestions that lymphatic, exocrine, endocrine, or neuromuscular functions might be associated with it.  However, about 1 in 100,000 people are born without an appendix; and, these individuals show no impairment to their immune system or gastrointestinal function.

The human appendix is prone to infection from trapped fecal matter; and, if infected it can rupture causing a life threatening case of peritonitis.  The question, of course, is why would an "intelligent designer" provide humans with a digestive tract that includes an organ that has no useful function in the digestion of food and which can threaten life?

While ID theory provides no answer to this question, conventional evolutionary biology suggests that the human appendix is a vestige of a much larger, and more functional appendix, found in a common ancestor that we share with other mammals.  In fact, some contemporary mammals possess quite large appendixes that help them digest cellulose.

The appendix is just one example of a biological structure that (from a design perspective) seems to have been rather poorly designed. There are many others.  Conventional evolutionary theory, however, doesn't require intelligent design.  It only requires that organisms adapt well enough for survival.

The driving force behind the attempts to introduce ID theory into science classrooms appears to be the incorrect notion common among religious fundamentalists that evolutionary theory in biology requires that life itself must have evolved from purely naturalistic causes and that all of life can be explained through naturalistic mechanisms.  However, that is not what evolutionary theory says.  It says only that more complex forms of life evolved from less complex form, and that the materialistic properties of living organisms can be understood by applying basic scientific laws.

One does not have to be either an atheist or an agnostic to support that position.  There are many scientists with deep religious convictions who also find evolutionary theory to be basically sound.  In fact, in the K-12 realm, the most detailed discussions of evolutionary biology can be found in the Catholic parochial schools, which are not exactly hotbeds of godless atheism.

The IP's position on ID is that it should not be taught in science classes because it is not science; however, there is no reason why it could not be discussed in a class that compares the many varied religious alternatives to scientific theories.  But, if does find its way into science classes then it should be subjected to same rigorous standards as other scientific theories.

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